Hands-on Sustainability Curriculum

If You Give a Kid a Shovel
by Joe Gillespie

Have you ever watched kids dig potatoes for the first time? It is like a treasure hunt. Or experienced the joy of pulling a beautiful, long orange carrot, washing it, and eating it right then and there? There is no substitute for these experiences.

I have been gardening with students for a long time. More recently, I have written a couple of successful grants to purchase wind turbines and solar panels, along with community educational materials on alternative energy. For years, I did all of this with sixth graders. When I got bumped to eighth grade, I began teaching a course called Sustainable Living. I believe that I am teaching important life skills, and preparing students for a new future that may be much different than our current way of living.

Sustainable Living is a semester-long, elective class designed to teach students about sustainability through the use of our extensive garden, our rooftop solar panels, and small wind turbines. We immerse students into the world of gardening and eating the good food that we grow. With our thirty raised beds, a greenhouse, extensive worm bins, and composting area as an outdoor classroom, we learn about everything from building good soil to seed germination to preserving our crops. We monitor our own solar and wind energy production, and cook and prepare food twice a week.

Every day is a little different and always very hands-on. I have found something very interesting about teaching gardening over the years. There is usually no immediate gratification, which is what students are used to and what they desire. Other than seeing a radish seed pop out of the soil fairly quickly, most plants take two to three months to grow to a harvestable size. And there is all of the weeding and watering to do. Yet the reward is often so great, that if you can just get them that far, the concepts they learn are deeply ingrained in their being.

While some students may not take their learning to the level you would like them to, they do get something out of it that may reach out to them later in life. The other day some boys said they wanted to do more shoveling. They didn’t really care what the goal was, they just wanted to use a shovel! I told them the story of how I once got a very good construction job because I was able to demonstrate how well I could use a shovel.

What really works for me is my unbridled enthusiasm. The kids sense my own passion for the many topics we study, and this will always work for a teacher. I try to transfer this into keeping them as busy as possible and gradually give them more and more responsibility. If they don’t plant the seeds right, we may not have food to eat. If they don’t water the sprouts, they begin to stink. The students become dependent on each other to do their jobs well. It is experiential education at its best, and it can be very rewarding when we all work together toward a common goal.

I have also come to realize that interfacing with the public gives the kids a unique opportunity to see how much the community values what they are doing and learning. The best part of the first semester class was when we were featured at our community Green Day. The students were surprised by two things: how much the public loved what they were doing and valued their projects, and how much they actually knew and were able to share. We also sell produce when we have an abundance, usually of lettuces, and so many people like seeing these kids with their vegetables and getting different varieties of organic produce. I get asked all the time around town when our next wind turbine will go up. People want to be part of a different energy solution, and in our community, we are leading the way.

I want students to see and experience the joy of watching plants grow, to know what good soil is and how to build it, and to taste the delicious freshness of our harvests. I want them to appreciate the joy of preparing and eating food together. I want them to be able to look around on a sunny day and feel proud of the beautiful garden they have created with their hard work. I want them to be able to see clearly into the future of alternative energy and transportation. I want them to be able to live a life more connected to their surroundings and to know the stories of their food. I want them to be able to see themselves as members of their community, with an awareness of their connections to it and to the greater community of all life on Earth.


Joe GillespieJoe Gillespie is a science teacher from Crescent Elk Middle School in Crescent City, Del Norte County, California, located on the Pacific Coast in the heart of the Redwood Forest. He lives with his wife and son on the wild and scenic Smith River, where they keep a large garden and orchard, and manage a vacation rental. Joe also chairs a local environmental organization, the Friends of Del Norte, through which he has been very active in conservation issues for over 35 years.

(cc) Yes! Magazine.  Reprinted with permission.

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